The origins of Rufus began in 1884 with the arrival of Rufus C. Wallis from Tennessee. The first name of the town was Wallis Station in honor of Mr. Wallis who ran a ferry boat and a ware house and was considered the second largest wheat shipper on record. The early town site consisted of approximately five acres which Wallis surveyed, platted and deeded to the city out of his homesteaded area in 1892. Rufus Wallis eventually moved to Klickitat, Washington but later returned to Rufus where he spent his remaining years.

Rufus' population experienced an expansion period after the flood of 1894 which literally washed out the neighboring town to the west, Grant. Grant was never rebuilt and the majority of its citizens moved to Rufus. Before that, Rufus flourished when William H. Biggs, at a legislative session in Salem in 1885, succeeded in securing passage of a bill which compelled the railroads to place sidings where needed, and two of those places were Biggs and Rufus.

Rufus' third major growth period came during the construction of the John Day Dam between the years of 1959 and 1968, Interstate 84, and other nearby federally funded construction projects. Incorporation as a city came in 1965 when Rufus had a population of 625. It had developed as a service and residence center for construction workers. As the projects were completed between 1965 and 1970, the population declined to 317 in 1970. Although today there are not as many businesses as in the past the mild climate of Rufus and its location close to The Dalles have resulted in a number of people choosing Rufus for a place of retirement.
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